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The Calculating Stars:
A Lady Astronaut Novel
by Mary Robinette Kowal
TOR Books; 18.99; 431 pp.
Published: July 2018

This was an utter delight.

Kowal posits:  what if a meteorite hit the earth (in 1952) off the coast of Maryland, pretty much wiping out a lot of the East Coast, including Washington, D.C. The cataclysmic destruction is on the same level as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.  The science of the time, in her world, knows this is an extinction level event, meaning the earth will go through a nuclear winter of sorts and then heat up making the planet nigh on uninhabitable.

The only way to save humanity: get off planet and go to the stars.

So, we have Dr. Anselma (Elma) York, a physicist who can do very complicated calculations in her head. A genius who went to college at age fourteen who, having severe anxiety attacks went through constant hell, as she was always being thrust before her fellow students to show she was smarter than boys.  But her genius is undeniable.

In World War II, she was a WASP and flew planes all over—she loves flight and is an ace pilot. A love she got from her father. Her husband is an engineer.  They get involved in the nascent space program…and it is all “Hidden Figures” from here. Kowal wrote the novel in 2016 before “Hidden Figures” came out.

She deals with the fact that women and not just women of color are looked on as helpless and fairly useless. But Kowal pulls her women together. Their struggles to be an integral part in getting ALL of mankind off the planet and out to the moon (and hopefully to Mars) is riveting. This is such a character-driven book, and it’s so fascinating to read about an alternate American History—where Dewey(not Truman) won the election and how the U.S. struggles to keep itself going. The government gathers up the best and the brightest to solve this dilemma to get into space quickly, along with the essential  help of the “computers,” the women who could design the equations, not only answer them.  Actual IBM computers were just getting made at this point.

Elma York and her fellow WASPs, both black and white, bond together to overcome the prejudices and short-sightedness of the white military establishment with dogged determination. And the step-by-step trial and error of unmanned flights, manned flights, and finally getting someone to land on the moon is exciting.

And best of all, the prejudices are overcome inch by painful inch, and Elma gets her heart’s desire and becomes a lady astronaut.  The writing is terrific and the story well -constructed. The characters are not only the heart of the matter they’re terrifically drawn out.  This is a great summer read and I can’t wait for the next one. ~~ Sue Martin

For reviews of other titles by Mary Robinette Kowal click here

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